One of the funnier moments this winter -- this side of anything Jon Stewart did -- came from Minnesota manager Ron Gardenhire, who fired back last month when asked about the Chicago White Sox re-signing Paul Konerko and adding Jim Thome.
|Tony Batista joins the Twins after spending last season in Japan. (Getty Images)|
Few do the woe-is-us, small-market rumba better or more entertainingly than Gardenhire, but this time, there was a whole lot of hard truth beneath the comic veneer.
No matter how you dress 'em up, the Twins, for the first time in four winters, will head toward spring training as challengers. Their run of three consecutive AL Central titles stopped by the White Sox last season, the Twins will spend the summer chasing rather than being chased.
"We need to improve our defense," general manager Terry Ryan said Thursday before heading out into threatening weather for an appearance on the Twins' Winter Caravan. "Chasing the White Sox is not any surprise. They had an excellent winter after an excellent '05.
"Chasing is not what you want to be doing, but they deserved what they got. And they had the kind of winter you like to have as an organization. Not only did they bring back their guy, but they added some key pieces."
Unfortunately for Minnesota, Gardenhire's humor notwithstanding, it no longer resides in the AL's Comedy Central. The division has improved steadily over the past three seasons from its days as the weakest in the AL, and as a Twins team that remains deeply talented re-calibrates, the White Sox aren't the only obstacle.
As Ryan noted, "We're also chasing the Indians. They had a good year. They're ahead of schedule -- they've even admitted that. They do a lot of things right. I like the way they go about their business, not only on the major-league side, but in their drafts, the way they run things, their loyalty ... the White Sox and Indians are two clubs that have done a lot of things right."
For three years running, from 2002-04, nearly everything the Twins did was right, too. Following one of the most fallow stretches in club history during the mid-to-late 1990s, Minnesota turned the corner and became on October regular. Potent pitching and strong defense were yearly staples -- as were a rich farm system and savvy front office moves.
But a series of baseball and financial decisions left the Twins with a rebuilt infield last year -- including the entire right side following the departures of third baseman Corey Koskie and shortstop Cristian Guzman -- and it didn't go as planned. The Twins were surprisingly sloppy at times in '05, and ranking tied for sixth with the Yankees in AL fielding only told part of the story. Add to that an offense that went AWOL for much of the season -- the Twins ranked among the bottom of most AL offensive categories -- and, well, it was a recipe for disappointment. Or at least third place.
The Twins will be back with strong pitching in '06 and, while the White Sox made all the right moves, the Twins -- typically quiet and overlooked -- filled their holes, too.
The most significant additions are designated hitter Rondell White, third baseman Tony Batista and second baseman Luis Castillo.
White has a history of injuries, but the fact the Twins plan to use him mostly as a designated hitter and limit his time in the outfield has club officials optimistic that they can keep him on as the DH and off the DL. The Twins also spoke with Frank Thomas and Mike Piazza over the winter as potential DHs, but those talks are finished now that White, who hit .313 with 12 homers, 53 RBI and a .347 on-base percentage in 97 games with Detroit last season, is signed.